Gustav Mahler

Biography

Born: July 7, 1860; Czech Republic   Died: May 18, 1911; Austria   Period: Romantic
"Imagine the universe beginning to sing and resound," Mahler wrote of his Symphony No. 8, the "Symphony of a Thousand." "It is no longer human voices; it is planets and suns revolving." Mahler was late Romantic music's ultimate big thinker. In his own lifetime he was generally regarded as a conductor who composed on the side, producing huge, bizarre symphonies accepted only by a cult following.

Born in 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia, he came Read more from a middle-class family. He entered the Vienna Conservatory in 1875, studying piano, harmony, and composition in a musically conservative atmosphere. Nevertheless, he became a supporter of Wagner and Bruckner, both of whose works he would later conduct frequently, and became part of a social circle interested in socialism, Nietzschean philosophy, and pan-Germanism. Around 1880, he began conducting and wrote his first mature work, Das klagende Lied. Mahler's conducting career advanced rapidly, moving him from Kassel to Prague to Leipzig to Budapest; he was usually either greatly respected or thoroughly despised by the performers for his exacting rehearsals and perfectionism. In 1897 he became music director of the Vienna Court Opera and then, a year later, of the Vienna Philharmonic. Mahler's conducting career permitted composition only during the summers, in a series of "composing huts" he had built in picturesque rural locations. He completed his first symphony in 1888, but it met with utter audience incomprehension. He reserved this time for symphonies, all of them large-scale works, and song cycles. In Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), he merged the two forms into an immense song-symphony. The Viennese public largely failed to understand his music, but Mahler took their reactions calmly, accurately predicting that "My time will yet come." Meanwhile, his autocratic ways as a conductor alienated musicians. In 1901, the press and the musicians essentially forced his resignation from the Philharmonic. He married a young composition student, Alma Schindler in 1902, and they soon had two daughters. By 1907 Mahler was increasingly away from Vienna, conducting his own works, and thus he resigned from the opera as well. Just after accepting the position of principal conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera, but before leaving Vienna, Mahler's older daughter, age 4, died from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he learned he himself had a defective heart valve. In New York, he was impressed by the caliber of talent and quickly gained audience approval. In 1909 he became conductor of the New York Philharmonic, which he found much more agreeable than the opera work by this time. The following year, he had a triumphant premiere of his massive Symphony No. 8 in Munich. Despite the professional successes, his personal life suffered another blow when his and Alma's marriage began having problems. They stayed together, and after he became ill in February 1911, she saw to it that he made it back to Vienna, where he died on May 18.

The conductors Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Willem Mengelberg, and Maurice Abravanel kept Mahler's legacy alive, and Mahler's are now among the most recorded of any symphonies. His frequent incorporation of vocal elements into symphonic writing brought to full fruition a process that had begun with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, demonstrating his music's firm roots in the Germanic classical tradition. However, it was his huge tapestries of shifting moods and tones, ranging from tragedy to bitter irony (often explicitly indicated in performance directions), from café music to evocations of the sublime, that portended a century in which multiplicity ruled. Read less

Mahler: Symphony No 8 / Solti, Chicago [Blu-ray Audio]
Release Date: 02/11/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 001993346   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 2 / Jurowski, Stotijn, Kucerova
Release Date: 06/28/2011   Label: Lpo  
Catalog: 54   Number of Discs: 2
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Mahler: Symphony No 1 / Jurowski, London PO
Release Date: 05/28/2013   Label: Lpo  
Catalog: 70   Number of Discs: 2
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Mahler: Symphony No 2 / Mehta, Vienna Philharmonic [Blu-ray Audio]
Release Date: 02/11/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 001993646   Number of Discs: 1
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Mahler: Symphony No 9 / Barshai, Moscow Radio So
Release Date: 12/07/1993   Label: Bis  
Catalog: 632   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 2 in C minor "Resurrection"

 

About This Work
Mahler's Second Symphony represents a step in the direction of expansion from the First. Its enormous resources -- huge orchestra, soprano and alto soloists, chorus, and organ, as well as its epic theme of death and resurrection -- represent Mahler Read more at the pinnacle of his earlier heaven-storming style and aesthetic. The transformative theme employed here will eventually become the common thread of every subsequent symphony. It is quintessential Mahler and covers a vast panorama of style and emotion, culminating in one of the most breathtaking and moving conclusions in the symphonic repertory.

Just like the First Symphony, Mahler's Second began life as a single-movement tone poem, Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). At one time Mahler commented that this tone poem represented the funeral of the hero from his First Symphony. Sometime in 1893 Mahler decided to expand Todtenfeier into a symphony. He began by composing an Andante and expanding his recently composed Wunderhorn song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (Antony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish) into an orchestral scherzo. At this point Mahler struggled to find a sufficiently powerful ending to balance the already massive symphonic torso. He solved the problem when he discovered Klopstock's chorale Resurrection. Having created the progression from the death of Todtenfeier, now the first movement, to the resurrection theme of the Finale, Mahler bridged the gap with another Wunderhorn song, "Urlicht" (Primeval Light). He used this song entire, with voice, and excluded it from the published collection of Wunderhorn Songs. The structure was now complete. It is the crowning glory of Mahler's earlier works and his most popular composition.

Allegro maestoso. This massive and unusual movement is in a hugely expanded sonata form. The sharp contrast between the funeral march material and the hymn-like lyrical second subject set the theme for the entire symphony.

Andante moderato. The dance structure alternates a folk-like and melodic Ländler with two more agitated Trios. The Ländler, according to Mahler's original program, represents the "image of a long-dead hour of Happiness," while the Trios recall death.

In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (Quietly Flowing). This movement carries the same theme as the song from which it is derived -- the futility and pointlessness of life. The St. Antony song pervades the main sections, while the Trios represent, respectively false joy and sentiment.

"Urlicht." In a subtle breakthrough, Mahler does a complete spiritual reversal on the preceding sardonic Scherzo. "Urlicht" is a rapt hymn of deep beauty, powerful enough in its brevity to change the bitter mood of what has come so far to the latent hope of what will follow.

Im Tempo des Scherzos. Wild herausfahrend. (In Scherzo tempo, Wildly driven). The opening is a "cry of disgust" for the plight of humankind, but shortly gives way to a spacious and haunting evocation of nature and the last trumpet awakening the dead. This is expanded into a typical march that culminates in a return to the "cry of disgust," before finally giving way permanently to the "Resurrection" chorale and the triumphant conclusion.

-- Steven Coburn
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